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Why Small Businesses Need a New Approach to Learning

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

Small businesses often see learning as a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Once you meet the bare minimum of compliance training, why would you waste precious resources and time on learning?

The answer is simple, but may be hard to hear. For small businesses, learning is critical to success: By teaching people to think proactively rather than reactively, a small workforce can grow and scale with a nimbleness and creativity that's harder for large organizations to implement. In other words, it's easier to pivot a small boat in a storm—but only if the crew can think on their feet.

Implementing learning in a small company presents unique benefits, but, of course, it comes with its own set of challenges. Small businesses often don't have the luxury of people (or even one person) solely dedicated to L&D. Instead, they need to find ways to integrate learning into the daily work that they do, and figure out how to build each other up.

Don't Limit Learning to Hard Skills

The first question to ask is "What kind of learning will we offer?" For most organizations, "learning" is still focused on teaching hard skills. This works for large companies who are in a position to hire people with a limited understanding of the job—maybe they have four out of the five skills needed to really get the job done. Large companies can set up intensive training programs and craft ongoing mentorship programs to help employees achieve the last skill.

When it comes to small businesses, though, most companies are looking for people who can already do the job in full force. When I owned a small snowboarding shop, we hired people who knew how to ride a snowboard, how to evaluate the performance of a snowboard, how to fit people, how to tune, etc. We didn't really need to teach hard skills—so why did we need training?

We needed soft skills. We needed to move from a mentality of "this is what you need to know to do your job" to "this is what you need to learn in order to grow." If you think about learning programs as an opportunity to create a "developmental mindset" instead of tune a snowboard, then you're headed for success. By teaching our employees to manage people, ask smart questions and represent our brand, we encouraged everyone to bring new knowledge to the company. In the end, this mindset allowed us to grow and open a second shop seamlessly.

Teach Soft Skills

How do you create this "developmental mindset"? The first step is to improve communication skills between leadership, managers and employees—and this comes down to two major things: crucial conversations and feedback.

Crucial conversations are discussions in which the results are high-stakes, opinions vary and emotions run strong. Small businesses are ripe with crucial conversations because every decision holds a lot of weight when you're a lean operation. By training employees on how to handle crucial conversations, in both listening and speaking, you can ensure that every discussion is civil and productive. Certification programs are affordable, and can even be done online.

The next critical soft skill is about communicating feedback. It's not just giving feedback that matters, but how you give feedback. I think of feedback as a three-skill system: giving feedback, receiving feedback and asking for feedback. Feedback starts with setting the right expectations, and giving ownership to the employee: What do they think is going well? What can improve? From there, the manager should respond and expand, and the two can develop a plan together.

Have One-on-Ones

When it comes to putting crucial conversations and feedback skills into practice, implementing an ongoing one-on-one program is critical.

It's important to understand the difference between a team meeting and a one-on-one meeting. Team meetings are a data dump: Usually leadership leads the meeting and makes a few announcements, and employees chime in on what they're working on and what needs to be done. One-on-one meetings are reflective: The employee should lead the meeting and discuss his goals, concerns and achievements, and the manager should answer with her solutions and feedback.

There are two major benefits to one-on-ones. First, managers receive more in-depth updates about the company's operations. As a leader in a small business, it's hard to keep on top of everything. And second, they also receive an incredible coaching opportunity.

In the end, learning in a small business is about communication and transparency. If you can teach employees to be their best advocates, and teach managers to be mentors, then you have a strong future ahead of you.

Photo: Twenty20

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